by Rev. Clete Hux –
Today, more and more, Mary the mother of Jesus is being given a prominence in Roman Catholicism which finds little or no support in the Bible. When a contrast is made between the biblical Mary and the Mary of Roman Catholic tradition, the result is two very different portraits of Mary. And the Roman Catholic portrait quite often obscures Christ. As a matter of fact, in many respects the Mary of Rome is portrayed as a female parallel to Jesus.
For example, consider the following: Jesus was born without sin; Mary was conceived without original sin. Jesus was sinless; Mary lived a sinless life. Jesus ascended to heaven following His resurrection; Mary was bodily assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Jesus is a Mediator; Mary is mediatrix. Jesus is a redeemer; Mary is a co-redeemer. Jesus is the King; Mary is the Queen of Heaven.[i] In this article, I will examine these six dimensions of the Roman Catholic view of Mary and evaluate them from a biblical perspective.
Did Mary Escape Original Sin?
Roman Catholicism teaches that Mary was preserved from original sin in her “immaculate conception.” That is, when she was conceived in the womb of her own mother, she was miraculously preserved from the pollution of sin inherited from Adam. In both body and soul, she is believed by Catholics to be holy, stainless, spotless, undefiled, pure, and innocent in every way. In his papal Bull Ineffabilis of 1854, Pope Pius IX defined Mary’s immaculate conception as follows:
[A]ccordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The same Pope also stated how serious an issue it is to reject this dogma:
Hence, if anyone shall dare – which God forbid – to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by other outward means the errors he thinks in his heart.[ii]
Trying to find scriptural justification for the Roman view is difficult. Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, acknowledges that the immaculate conception of Mary is not “explicit” but only “implicit” in Gen. 3:15.[iii] It is not at all clear, however, how it is even implicit in that text. Rome is simply reading its own view back into Genesis 3:15 in order to justify an unbiblical doctrine. Also, it is worth noting that certain theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries, such as Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, rejected the immaculate conception.[iv]
The fact is that the Bible does not teach that Mary was immaculately conceived. Rather, she had a sin nature and was in the same fallen spiritual condition as everyone else. This is not to say that she was a horrible person, but only that she was a sinner. We know this in part because she recognized her need of a Savior. She said, “I rejoice in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47). Mary also presented an offering to the Jewish priest showing she was a sinner (Luke 2:22-24).
Roman Catholics interpret Mary’s reference to Jesus as her “savior” by claiming that she was “saved” by being prevented, on the basis of Christ’s merits, from inheriting original sin (unlike the rest of us who were allowed to fall). However, that is not the most natural reading of the text. Scripture is clear when it says that “all have sinned and fallen short” and “none is righteous no not one,” (Rom. 3:23; 3:10). The only exception mentioned in Scripture is Jesus.
Was Mary Perpetually a Virgin?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “[t]he deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.” The Catechism goes on to add that Mary “remained. . .always a virgin.”[v] Thus, it is taught by the Catholic Church that she remained perpetually a virgin. She never had sexual relations with Joseph. It is not entirely clear why Rome teaches this doctrine. Some Catholics speculate that it is necessary to maintain her moral purity. That is, Roman Catholics may think that had Mary engaged in sexual relations with Joseph at any time she would have been defiled. This wrongly implies, however, the sexual relations within marriage are morally impure (cf. Heb. 13:4).
Alan Schreck offers another rationale for Mary’s perpetual virginity. He writes,
It is a full response to God’s unique call to Mary. It is a sign of her total consecration to God and of respect for the fact that God himself had dwelt and grown within her womb. What other human child would be worthy of sharing that dignity?[vi]
But, why would Mary have to make such a “total consecration to God”? Her mission was to bear the Christ-child. When she did so, her mission was accomplished. Only if one accepts other Roman Catholic beliefs concerning the mission and role of Mary in redemption would one have any motivation to accept this argument. As for it being somehow undignified for another child to later share that womb, what reason do we have to think so? Again, the Roman Catholic most likely thinks so either because he sees something impure or distasteful about human sexuality and procreation or because he looks at Mary’s virginity through the lens of other exalted beliefs about her that he holds.
In opposition to Rome’s view, Protestants point to New Testament references to Jesus having brothers (Matt. 13:55, 56) as proof that Mary and Joseph did in fact engage in sexual relations after Jesus’ birth. However, many Catholics claim that such references to Jesus’ “brothers” really refer to “cousins.” Ron Rhodes points out, however, that this is not the case. He writes,
It is true that the Greek term for brother (adelphos) can be used in a sense not referring to a literal brother (for example, it can refer to Jewish brothers). Yet, unless the context indicates otherwise, Greek scholars agree the term should be taken in its normal sense of a literal brother. There was a perfectly appropriate word in the Greek language that could have been used in the biblical text for “cousins” (anepsios) but this word is not used in these verses that speak of Jesus’ brothers. Since these “brothers” are always mentioned as being with Mary, from the context it’s clear that literal brothers are in view.”[vii]
Another attempt of Roman Catholics to escape this difficulty is to suggest that Jesus’ “brothers” were older half-brothers born to Joseph in a previous marriage. Other than the fact that this is highly speculative and based on later extra-biblical traditions, this position would imply that Joseph’s oldest son (and not Jesus) “would have been heir to David’s throne.”[viii]
Instead of being a perpetual virgin, the Bible presents a different picture altogether. For instance, Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “kept Mary a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” The obvious implication is that normal marital sexual relations between Joseph and Mary took place following the birth of Jesus.
Roman Catholics may respond, though, by bringing up Luke 1:34 where Mary responds to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement of her bearing Jesus. Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Perhaps Mary, having asked this, was indicating that she had taken a life-long vow of virginity. Yet, we know that Mary was engaged to Joseph at this time, before they came together (Matt. 1:18). Women who make vows of celibacy do not get engaged to be married, and those who are engaged do not make vows of celibacy. Also, Paul makes it clear that sexual intercourse in marriage is something which is owed to the other spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-5). For Mary to be married to Joseph, but refrain from sexual relations with him would be for her to commit a sin! These considerations indicate very strongly that sexual relations between Mary and Joseph took place after the birth of Jesus.
Is Mary the “Mother of God”?
Roman Catholics often refer to Mary as the “Mother of God.” But what does this mean? If it simply means that Mary, because she physically carried Jesus in her womb so that she gave birth to the man-child who was the Son of God, there would not be a problem. Here the emphasis would be more on the nature of the one she bore, rather than on Mary herself. However, the term “Mother of God” could easily contribute to a deification of Mary, especially when combined with all of the other titles and attributes given to her in Catholicism.
It might be helpful to note the origin of the term “Mother of God.” The phrase is translated from the Greek theotokos and literally means “God-bearer.” It was first used by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century. At that time, Alexander used the term when speaking of Mary, but only in the sense that she was the physical mother of the Jesus (who was, of course, God incarnate). The term “Mother of God” was accepted into orthodox vocabulary and used at both the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) and Chalcedon (A.D. 451). As White rightly notes, originally the term was intended to be “Christological” in force, making a statement about Jesus and not about Mary.[ix]
Is Mary Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix?
The St. Peter Catechism of the Catholic Church asks, “Did God will to make our redemption and all its consequences depend upon the free consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary?” The catechism answers, “God willed that our redemption and all its consequences should depend on the free consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”[x] Such statements reflect the view of many Roman Catholics that Mary is both Co-redeemer and Mediatrix. This means that Mary shares with her Son in the work of redemption. Of course, Roman Catholics will be quick to say that the “co-” prefix does not mean “equal.” Her participation in the work of redemption is not on the same level with Jesus’. Instead, “co-” simply means “with”—Mary shares in some way with Jesus in the work of redemption.
Mark Miravalle, a leading advocate of Marian theology, states, “It is in the light of Mary’s unique and intimate cooperation with the Redeemer, both at the incarnation. . .and at the work of Redemption at Calvary. . .that the Church has invoked Mary under the title “Coredemptrix.”[xi] Because of the belief that Mary somehow cooperated with Christ for our redemption, the Roman Catholic Church places Mary not as the source of our redemption, but as a channel of our redemption.
Mary is also seen as Mediatrix of all graces. Mary’s mediation is understood in two ways:[xii] (1) in the sense that she bore Christ in her womb and was thus the channel through which he (and the grace he brings) came into the world; and (2) in the sense that all graces are channeled from Christ through her as part of her intercessory work in heaven. Though Catholic dogma demands only assent to the first sense, the second sense is widely defended among Catholics. Pope Leo XIII wrote: “Every grace granted to man has three degrees in order: for by God it is communicated to Christ, from Christ it passes to the Virgin, and from the Virgin it descends to us.”[xiii] Catholic apologist Karl Keating echoes this position: “Mary is the Mediatrix of all graces because of her intercession for us in heaven. What this means is that no grace accrues to us without her intercession.”[xiv]
The Bible knows nothing of Mary being Co-Redeemer or Mediatrix, however. Instead it says there is only one mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2:5). This mediation by Christ is not channeled through Mary nor did she have anything to do with securing our salvation. The only role that she had in our redemption (if it can even be called that) is her agreeing to bear Jesus in her womb. But in a similar mundane sense, many other people would be “co-redeemers”: Joseph who provided food and shelter for him, the priest who circumcised him, the synagogue leaders who taught him the Scriptures, John who baptized him, the soldiers who lifted him up on the cross, etc. No, it was Christ as our High Priest, Himself interceding for us who redeemed us (Hebrews 4:15). We need no other mediator or redeemer.
Some Roman Catholics would say that it was Mary who offered up Christ on the cross for our sins,[xv] but scripture states that it was Christ who offered Himself (Hebrews 9:14). Only God can save and there is no Savior besides God (Isaiah 43:11). The Bible is clear that only Christ is qualified to be our Redeemer, and it is because of His unique qualifications as our Redeemer that Mary is disqualified as Co-Redeemer.
Was Mary Assumed into Heaven?.
On November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII promulgated an Apostolic Constitution which announced that “the bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven be defined as a dogma of the divine and Catholic faith. . .”[xvi] In other words, it is official Catholic dogma that Mary’s body did not see decay, but was assumed into heaven.
However, nowhere in scripture or in the tradition of the early church do we find this doctrine. Roman Catholics even concede this point. For example, Ludwig Ott admits that direct and express scriptural proofs of Mary’s assumption are not available.[xvii] Karl Keating, however, gives an argument in the absence of direct scriptural proof when he says, “It was the Catholic Church that was commissioned by Christ to teach all nations and to teach them infallibly. The mere fact that the Church teaches the doctrine of the Assumption as something definitely true is a guarantee that it is true.”[xviii] But, this argument begs the question of the Catholic view of church authority. That is, it assumes (wrongly) that the Roman Catholic Church is infallible.[xix]
Besides the lack of biblical warrant for this doctrine is the fact that Rome itself is not consistent with its own statements about it. At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I condemned as heretical the earliest source for this doctrine, the apocryphal work Transitus beatae Mariae. Though not directly condemning the Assumption of Mary itself, Gelasius does not exempt the doctrine from his condemnation of its only extant source. White comments on the irony: “What was defined by the bishop of Rome as heresy at the end of the fifth century becomes dogma itself in the middle of the twentieth!”[xx]
The Roman Catholic Church asserts that Mary was “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), preserved from original sin and kept from the consequence of sin (i.e., the corruption of her physical body). However, we have no basis for believing that she was bodily assumed into heaven.
Should Mary Be Venerated?
Roman Catholics also teach that Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” is to be venerated by all the faithful. To venerate Mary is not supposed to mean to worship Mary. The concepts of worship and veneration are distinguished by Catholics. And whatever veneration should be given to Mary is less than that which should be given to God. However, the distinction between veneration and worship is not at all clear. And the actual practice of faithful Roman Catholics would indicate that they are not very clear about it either—the devotion to Mary often bordering on idolatry.
Moreover, it should be stated once again that Rome advocates a doctrine which is nowhere taught in Scripture. If Mary is to be venerated as Rome teaches, then somewhere in the New Testament we ought to find evidence for such a practice. But, we do not. In fact, we find evidence for the non-veneration of Mary. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, on one occasion his mother and brothers came looking for him. When he was told that his mother and brothers were present, Jesus said:
“Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48-50)
Here Jesus intentionally downplays the spiritual significance of his blood relatives. Spiritually speaking, Jesus’ “mother and brothers” are those who have faith in him. Mary, his physical mother, is spiritually related to Jesus only insofar as she believes in him, and in her faith she is no more special or unique than any other woman who believes in him. This is the clear implication of this text. How is this consistent with the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary? It is not.
The Roman Catholic Church, of course, claims that Luke 1:42-48 supports Mary’s veneration.[xxi] In that passage we read statements such as “Blessed are you among women” and “All generations shall call me blessed.” Yet these pronouncements concerning Mary simply meant that a privilege was being given to her by God because she was to bear Jesus. “Blessed among women” certainly does not mean “exalted or venerated above all women.”
As we have seen, Jesus did not see Mary as Rome sees her. If he had Rome’s exalted view of Mary, why would he call her “woman” instead of “mother” (John 2:1-4; 19:26), something a Jewish son wasn’t supposed to do! In a sense, Jesus was rebuking Mary. Nowhere in the scriptures do we find support for the exalted titles that Rome has given her. Instead, we find Mary as a “bondslave to the Lord” (Luke 1:38). We see her having the same mindset that John the Baptist had: “He must increase. I must decrease.”
So, what should we think of Mary? Protestants can and should have the utmost respect and admiration for her. She was a bondservant to the Lord, ready to do his will. Her humble submission to God serves as an example to us all. But none of this suggests that we should elevate Mary to the status she has been given in the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic position on every point discussed above puts Mary in competition with Jesus. As James White notes, even though Roman Catholics will say that Mary is not equal to Christ, it seems that every office, every title, every function of Jesus Christ can be directly paralleled in her.11 Such a view of Mary actually diminishes and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work.
Although Mary was a wonderful godly woman, there was nothing about her that qualified her for all that Rome bestows on her. I am sure that if she were to speak to us today, she would say, “Stop it, now!”
Clete Hux is the Director and Counter-Cult specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center.
[i] Ron Rhodes, The 10 Most Important Things You Can Say to a Catholic (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2002), 55.
[ii] James White, Mary – Another Redeemer? (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 37.
[iii] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL, Tan Book Publishers, 1974), 200.
[iv] S. Lewis Johnson, “Mary, the Saints, and Sacerdotalism” in John Armstrong, ed., Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 121.
[v] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 1994), paragraphs 499, 510.
[vi] Alan Schreck, Basics of the Faith: A Catholic Catechism (An Arbor, MI: Servant, 1987), 281-282.
[vii] Rhodes, The 10 Most Important Things You Can Say to a Catholic, p. 58-59
[viii] Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Arguments and Differences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 303.
[ix] White, Mary – Another Redeemer?, 46-47.
[x] St. Peter Catechism (Liverpool: Print Origination, 1972), question 319.
[xi] Mark Miravalle, Mary: Coredemptix, Mediatrix Advocate (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1993), xv.
[xii] See Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (pp. 212-215) for an discussion of these two ways of understanding Mary’s mediation and the dogmatic weight that may be assigned to each.
[xiii] Pope Leo XIII, Jucunda Semper (1894).
[xiv] Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attacks on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 279.
[xv] E.g., Ludwig Ott states, “She voluntarily devoted her whole life to the service of the Redeemer, and, under the Cross, suffered and sacrificed with Him” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 213). He explains the nature of her sacrifice by quoting Pope Pius XII Encylical Mystici Corporis (1943), in which it is claimed that Mary “offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father. . .” (Ibid.)
[xvi] Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950).
[xvii] Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 208.
[xviii] Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 275.
[xix] See, the articles in this issue of Areopagus Journal by Steve Cowan and Harold O.J. Brown for critiques of the Catholic view of church authority.
[xx] White, Mary – Another Redeemer?, 54.
[xxi] See, e.g., Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 215; and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 971.